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Holtby End

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Luck Not the Sole Reason for the Caps’ 2nd Round Exit

Posted on 13 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There have been 41 Washington Capitals seasons and zero Stanley Cup Championships.

Those are the facts, there is no denying them.

2015-16 was supposed to be different. It sure felt that way, from the general manager to the coaches to the players to the fans and even some in the media. Heck, I was front and center putting myself out there saying this team and this season would be different.

In many ways, it was, and we’ll touch on that later.

But in the end, as Justin Williams, John Carlson, and many other Capitals players proclaimed on breakdown day on May 12, 2016, the season was a “failure” following a devastating overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six that allowed the Pens to win a very closely contested series, four games to two.

Pittsburgh scored 16 goals and Washington tallied 15 times in the series. Each Penguins victory, two of which came in overtime, was achieved by a single goal. Both teams had stretches where they dominated the play, but ultimately it was the Penguins who prevailed.

Did the Capitals deserve a better fate from the Hockey Gods?

Maybe, I mean how often do you see a goal scored off of the back of a player? That happened in game three for Pittsburgh, a game in which the Caps carried the large majority of the play, but managed to lose. Numerous times in this series the Capitals had themselves in position to bury a puck at a key moment, and somehow it bounced over their players stick. Surely luck was not on their side, and as Matt Niskanen noted on breakdown day, you talk to guys around the league who have won championships and they’ll tell you need luck along the way to win.

There is truth to that, around these parts there is no denying that the two Super Bowls the Baltimore Ravens won included some luck. Al Del Greco hit the upright on a field goal right before halftime and then a blocked Del Greco field goal, in the fourth quarter, landed right in the hands of Anthony Mitchell and he then returned it for the game winning touchdown in 2000 against the Titans. Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary pass to Jacoby Jones in 2012 went over the head of a Broncos safety that mistimed his play on the ball for the tying touchdown to set up overtime and an eventual huge Ravens upset. All of those plays included luck, but the Ravens were also good enough to put themselves in position to get the breaks.

You certainly need some luck to win and the Capitals received some of that in series one when Jason Chimera’s innocent dump in deflection traveled 100 feet and through the wickets of Steve Mason into the cage in game two. The Caps took advantage and raced to a three to nothing series lead and eventually prevailed, four games to two over the Flyers.

In series two, Washington didn’t get the bounces and lost by a goal, but it wasn’t bad luck that did them in.

We’ll get that to what ultimately doomed them in a minute, but first, let’s put some perspective on where this team has come from over the last two years.

After a disastrous 2013-14 season, the Capitals were an absolute train wreck and a Stanley Cup seemed to be mostly an unobtainable goal in the near term. Following the conclusion of that season, I was full of piss and vinegar and rightfully called for the ultra-conservative and often panic stricken general manager to be let go, along with the divisive bench boss who seemed to insist on being the smartest guy in the room. I was furious that the blue line continually was not properly addressed by George McPhee for over 10 plus seasons. Fortunately, owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick saw the same thing, when many in the national media were once again calling for the core of the team, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, to be shipped out instead.

Enter Coach Barry Trotz and promoted General Manager Brian MacLellan to commence a massive turnaround. They immediately went to work on two things the club desperately needed, a blue line fix and an identity as a team.

“Last year when I came here, that was the first thing we did, was fix the defense. We got two outstanding players in Brooks [Orpik] and Matt [Niskanen] and we started the process of building a culture and it started by fixing holes, by going out and getting the best people that we felt could do that and getting people who have won, then the next phase of that was to develop our own people,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz to Nestor Aparacio and I on February 29th, 2016 at a WNST radio event at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belair to continue the fight against leukemia and support the bone marrow registry.

Those moves laid the foundation for a very successful 2014-15 campaign that saw Washington return to the playoffs, defeat the New York Islanders in round one, and then lose in painful fashion, in overtime, in game seven against the New York Rangers. The Capitals only allowed 13 goals in seven games, but could only muster 12 goals themselves and lost twice in overtime in the final three contests.

It was an awful defeat, they lost a three games to one series lead, but everyone knew that the main problem was the Capitals didn’t have enough talent up front to score consistently. The loss was rough, but things were rapidly moving in the right direction after utter chaos just a year earlier. My end of the season blog focused on the need to improve the top six forwards and sure enough, MacLellan pulled it off dealing Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie and signing Justin Williams to a two year free agent deal. Unfortunately, adding those guys and the need to pay goalie Braden Holtby what he was rightfully worth, put the team up against the salary cap. With it not possible to move Brooks Laich’s boat anchor of a contract in the summer, the team was forced to part ways with grinding forward Joel Ward and defensemen Mike Green, both key players on the squad that fell just short against the Rags. They were tough personnel losses to a team that had become super close.

But Oshie and Williams fit in perfectly and the Ward and Green losses faded to the back of everyone’s mind as the Capitals stormed out of the gate and blew the league away in the regular season pretty much clinching the Presidents’ Trophy by Valentine’s Day. Holtby was legendary in the cage and he tied the NHL single season victory total for a goalie with 48 (tied with hall of famer, Martin Brodeur). It was so much fun and the team seemed to get tighter as a unit as the season moved on. This was surely setting up to be the year for a Cup parade, but quietly the Pittsburgh Penguins were addressing some serious issues they had themselves.

They fired their coach, Mike Johnston, and replaced him with former Rangers assistant Mike Sullivan. But more importantly, general manager Jimmy Rutherford made some great moves to transform his roster. In the summer, he traded high draft picks to Toronto to acquire scoring winger Phil Kessel and he dumped the slow and plodding Brandon Sutter for speedy Nick Bonino. After the season began, he also swapped David Perron for super-fast Cap killer Carl Hagelin. Suddenly he had a line that could skate like the wind, but he still had issues on the back end. Rob Scuderi was old and slower than molasses, but Rutherford somehow convinced Stan Bowman, who is considered an excellent GM, to deal mobile defensemen Trevor Daley for the past his prime Scuderi. It was a fleecing or highway robbery of a deal, whatever you want to call it. From there the Penguins were the best team in the league from January on and Washington knew they’d have their hands full with them, at some point. The Caps had become somewhat complacent given their huge standings lead while Pittsburgh pressed madly to move up the standings after wallowing out of playoff position for much of the first 40 games.

While the Penguins were making all of these moves, MacLellan not only added Oshie and Williams, but he brought in Mike Richards as a depth center. That move was excellent and if not for some of Richards outstanding penalty killing skills, the Flyers might have won game six, as well as game two. Richards ability to read back door passes and get his stick in lanes on defense and while shorthanded was very much needed. The Caps suddenly were not only super on the power play, but also on the penalty kill.

With the Richards move, the Caps only real question marks appeared to be on defense. The loss of Green was a blow, no doubt, you don’t replace a player of that caliber easily, and the Caps plan, partly due to limited salary cap room, was to go with rookies Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt on the back end as a third pairing. When Orpik was injured in early November with a cracked femur, suddenly those guys were forced to play more minutes than originally planned. They played well, too, perhaps clouding the judgement of the Capitals brass as the trade deadline approached. MacLellan did add Mike Weber as a depth defensemen and he somehow masterfully moved Laich out for an upgrade in forward Daniel Winnik. The move also freed up money on the current salary cap, but more importantly for 2016-17 when dollars would be needed to retain Marcus Johansson, who was having a career year, and others like Tom Wilson. Some wanted the Capitals to use that extra dough to acquire another defensemen given Oprik’s health issues and the lack of experience on the back end. Dan Hamhuis, among other experienced defensemen, were still out there reportedly to be had, but Washington passed.

After the trade deadline, at the WNST event with Coach Trotz on February 29th, I specifically asked him about the decision to go with the two players who had zero playoff experience on the back end.

“We talk about that, the blessing this year with Brooks being out for a long period of time, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup for 50 some games. We already know what they can do and it’s been really beneficial for us. I think by adding Mike Weber we’re eight deep at the NHL level,” explained Trotz on the rationale of where the organization stood on their blue line.

It seemed like a viable plan at the time and Weber certainly seemed like the type of guy who could fill in for an Orpik or even a Karl Alzner if there was an injury. But Oprik came back healthy down the stretch and despite the fact that Carlson missed 12 games with a cracked ankle/foot in March, the Caps only played Weber in 10 of the 21 contests that occurred before the post season began. Basically, the Capitals decided to ride Orlov, Schmidt and Taylor Chorney instead of Weber. #6 was a seven year veteran with more playoff experience (seven games) than the other three combined, but he spent most of the time in the press box becoming rusty. As anyone in hockey will tell you, performing in the regular season is one thing, but doing that in the playoffs is another story, so the Capitals were really taking a risk on the Orlov-Schmidt-Chorney trio.

When Orpik was concussed and injured his neck in game three against the Flyers, I remarked to MacLellan after that tilt that “this was the reason you went out and got Weber.” The GM seemed to nod his head in agreement, yet somehow it wasn’t until a series clinching victory in game six that Weber finally got a sweater for the Caps? The coaching staff went with Chorney over a more physical Weber against a chippy and dirty team like the Flyers. Weber, to that point, had never received the repetitions he really needed to play at a top four level that would be required when Orpik went down.

That leads me to where this season broke down. Yes, the Penguins were the faster team, but you can deter speed by keeping it to the outside and wearing it out with proper execution. The Bonino line, with seven goals, was the difference in the series and while they were fast, several of those goals came from right in front of the net following turnovers. Oprik’s terrible hit on Olli Maatta that took #3 out of three games and #44 too, as a result of a suspension, turned the entire series around, as well.  The Caps were flat the rest of game two and lost home ice. In game three, Schmidt made a costly turnover and then was manhandled in front by the small Hagelin for the eventual game winning goal. He would not play in two of the final three games. Orlov was benched for a game and the Caps only won once with Chorney in the lineup (game five of the Pens series). Weber did get a jersey for game four and played decently, but the game winning goal went off of his stick to Patrick Hornqvist and he was banished to the press box once again.

When Alzner’s groin, that he initially injured in the Flyers series, finally popped in game six, the Caps had little left on the back end other than Carlson and a tiring Niskanen, who played all 82 games and every playoff game with King Karl, to that point. After #27’s injury, Orpik took another awful penalty, a careless double minor for high sticking on Hornqvist with the puck 50 feet away in period two, and the Caps great penalty killing unit was suddenly forced to play both Chorney and Orlov in succession. Two goals in 29 seconds was the result and that put the Caps in a deep hole, 3-0. It was a terrible penalty that Orpik could not afford to take, once again, and it was especially bad knowing that Alzner was done for the game. In short, as much as I like Orpik and what he can bring to the Capitals, he had a nightmare 2015-16 season with his injuries and bad penalties. Simply put, the Penguins were faster, but they also were able to get to the front of the Capitals net, and most of those occasions came when members of the bottom half of the Washington defense were on the ice.

Now the encouraging part of the story is that this is where this Capitals teamed proved to be different.  Instead of folding tent like the 2009 Caps did in game seven against Pittsburgh when they went down 3-0, they fought back and forced overtime in game six showing tremendous fortitude and resolve. They probably should have won too, but failed to capitalize on a late power play that they received. At that juncture they seemed a little too comfortable at that moment at just being tied up, something that occurred too frequently during this season and in the Flyers series, as well.

On to overtime we went and the Capitals, who rode the top six forwards and Carlson and Niskanen on the back end heavily, were out of gas. Niskanen was forced to play with guys he wasn’t used to being paired with and miscommunication happened on the game winning tally, which was another goal that once again came from the doorstep on a rebound.

In a nutshell, the Capitals lost on their lack of defensive depth, something they thought they had, but really didn’t.  They put too much stock in the abilities of Orlov and Schmidt based on their regular season success and they failed to take advantage and develop or possibly misevaluated what Weber could bring to the lineup. It was a waste of a third round draft pick the way it all played out. The Penguins found their way through the Washington back end too easily and Holtby couldn’t prevent all of those second chance tallies.

In addition, their season long tendency to sit back and not take control of games cost them dearly. They didn’t attack in game two and show that killer instinct to seize a critical contest and the series. That lack of killer instinct also allowed a Kris Letang-less Penguins team to steal game four. The Pens gained confidence to win in those first 30 minutes when the Capitals needed to step on their throats and not allow them to believe they could prevail without their best defensemen. It was a major opportunity lost.

Finally, the Capitals loss of Ward took away a player who routinely went to the front of the net in the postseason to get ugly goals. Washington didn’t have much of that against the Penguins outside of a couple of Williams tallies (but one was with the goalie pulled). The Caps need their bottom six forwards to chip in with more greasy goals.

So where does that lead us heading in to 2016-17?

Obviously the team is extremely disappointed that they let a major chance to win a championship slip by once again. The lack of true defensive depth, killer instinct, and inability to add in some rebound goals was what ultimately cost them the series against what should become in June, the 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning Penguins.

Some will call for panic and to try to blow things up, like the San Jose Sharks nearly did following a loss to the Kings in 2014 after owning a 3-0 series lead. Two springs later, the Sharks are in the hunt for the Cup and credit for that goes to hanging on to their core, the addition of Ward up front, and bringing in Paul Martin on defense.

Washington needs to find a Paul Martin type on the back end because running out the same seven guys again, particularly the four after Carlson, Niskanen, and Alzner, carries significant risk.

Johansson will be the top offseason priority to sign to a long term deal. He’s a key piece to this team and had a remarkable regular and post season. He was one of the guys going to the net against the Flyers and scoring tough goals. He also brings a major element of speed.

Wilson is next on the priority list as a restricted free agent. #43 made significant contributions this year on the penalty kill and defensively. In some games, such as game five against the Penguins, he was a difference maker by drawing penalties and keeping the opponent out of the offensive zone. Still, he needs to develop his offensive skills so that he could possibly fill that Ward type of role in front of the net. His improvement is a must and the coaches need to aid that by playing him more. If they prefer not to do that or think he can’t do that, then a move is needed.

Orlov is a restricted free agent, as well, and he and Schmidt are similar players, along with Chorney. The Caps management team needs to determine if that is indeed the way to go to win a Stanley Cup on the back end. My recommendation would be to move at least one of them and upgrade the blue line, especially since Oprik is adding another year and he has an injury history.

Ovechkin is about to head into his 12th season and the Capitals need to win soon (Steve Yzerman’s first Cup came in his 14th season). The Gr8 was superb in these playoffs and downright dominant in several games, such as game five against the Penguins. Oshie, Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alzner are all free agents after next season and will require more dollars. Carlson has two more years to go at the deal of the century, a contract just under $4M per season. He was the Capitals best player in the post season and will command $7M plus in 2018-19.

Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky are two young players that had super regular seasons, but as a result of playing all 82 games, didn’t have the legs they had in 2015-16 when they were playoff difference makers. They need to learn from that and be better prepared physically next spring. They need to add strength and learn to get some ugly goals in front.

I typically wait several days before writing this blog to let the emotions of the playoff defeat die down, but I don’t think that will be possible this season. This was one tough loss and a major opportunity gone by the wayside. Everyone will feel the pain all summer and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here next season beginning my 2016-17 final blog with a 0 and 42 statistic.

I know the Capitals don’t want me to be doing so either.

Everything the Caps do between now and next April 15th has to be about the playoffs and winning the Cup. The team is tight and the culture is strong, but they need to develop that killer instinct. In addition, the management needs to address the personnel short comings on defense and the coaching staff needs to be quicker to adjust when things aren’t working.

The last thing management needs to do is panic and make radical changes, this team is ultra close, but more is necessary to get over the hump.

So the time is now for the Capitals to start getting at next year and doing everything in their power to make sure no stone is left unturned and no holes are left exposed when injuries or uncomfortable situations present themselves in the spring of 2017 playoffs.

There were a lot of things to like from this team this year, but the ultimate prize was not captured and the season was a major disappointment, or a failure, as many players called it.

The clock is ticking.

They must end this awful postseason losing cycle once and for all.

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Ovie Game 5 Pens

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Ovechkin, Holtby, and Oshie Help Caps Force a Game 6

Posted on 08 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

With their season on the line, the Washington Capitals received huge performances from their stars in a 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Alex Ovechkin was an absolute beast in this contest with a goal and an assist, T.J. Oshie had the same, and Braden Holtby made 30 saves to force a game 6 at the Consol Energy Center on Tuesday at 8 pm.

Wow, what a hockey game!

Both teams left it all on the ice in this one and it was the battle of superb forechecks for the first 40 minutes. After a great start by the Caps, the Penguins put on a clinic with their 1-2-2 pressure forcing Washington into poor puck management and turnovers throughout the later half of the opening stanza. The shots on net were 12-4 for the Pens after 20 minutes, but shot attempts were 25-21 for Pittsburgh since the Capitals missed the net 10 times.

In the middle frame, the Caps did a better job of breaking out by swarming the puck and using the high glass or lob over the Penguins defense. That forced Pittsburgh to do more retreating and allowed the Capitals to carry the play. Washington out shot attempted the black and gold, 26-19, and took a 2-1 lead on Oshie’s rebound of another strong Ovechkin shot. Justin Williams then pounced on a Pens turnover and beat Matt Murray five hole to give the Caps their 1st two goal cushion of this series. The lead could’ve been extended more, but the Caps missed the net 12 additional times, including some great chances for Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom.

In the third period the Capitals played smart using a 1-3-1 type of setup in the neutral zone and, as a result, Pittsburgh had to dump the puck in way more than they wanted. The Caps continued to swarm the loose biscuit and that helped them win a lot of the battles against a speedier team.

Pittsburgh didn’t have many quality chances in that last frame as the Caps played with desperation.

Desperation is what the Caps will continue to feel, because a Penguins victory on Tuesday closes this series out.

Pittsburgh got Kris Letang (30:11 of ice time) back after a one game suspension and his play stepping up in the neutral zone was a big factor early.

The Caps, however, will get Brooks Orpik back on Tuesday after his three game suspension. His veteran leadership and presence should help stabilize a Washington back end that has made too many big mistakes in this series.

On Saturday night though, the Caps defensemen were very solid and the only goal allowed by Washington was while they were shorthanded.

The Capitals received stellar goaltending from the Holtbeast, including back to back huge stops on Patrick Hornqvist (pad save) and Justin Schultz (glove save) late in period two. #70 was dialed in, like his teammates, and they’ll need to be in game six.

Pittsburgh still is in the driver’s seat in this series since the Caps have no margin for error. However, coming into game five, Pittsburgh was 8-0 lifetime against Washington in previous such occasions.

Washington will need to bring their best game if they want to have a chance at extending the series, once again.

Desperation, that’s what every Capitals player has to bring to every battle on every shift on Tuesday night.

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 27:28. He was outstanding, along with Karl Alzner (25:02). John Carlson had an assist in 24:50. He was dominant, as well…final shot attempts were 69-58 for the Penguins, but that was due to 3rd period score effects…Tom Wilson only played 7:20, but he drew a key slashing penalty on Ian Cole that led to Oshie’s PPG. Willy also was super on the PK and late in regulation. The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage while the Penguins went 1 for 2.

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Oshie Hat Trick

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T.J. Oshie’s Hat Trick Tally Wins it in OT for the Caps

Posted on 29 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

T.J. Oshie’s wrap around, hat trick completing goal 9:33 into overtime gave the Washington Capitals a thrilling 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in game one of their best of seven series that began at the Verizon Center on Thursday night.

Wow, what a hockey game!

The pace to this one was incredible and if you took your eyes off of the play for even a second, you probably missed a scoring chance. The Penguins are as good as advertised, they play fast and they continually go for the long pass to try and take advantage of their jet like speed.

On the flip side, the Caps want to play a much more deliberate game and force the Pens to deal with Washington’s superior size.

It was an epic battle and both teams, in the opening salvo, had their periods where they dominated the play.

Pittsburgh was really good in period two and stronger in period three, while the Caps, after a shaky first two to three minutes, owned the first period and the overtime.

Fittingly, shot attempts ended up 77-76 for the Pens, so it shows you just how close this contest was. In the opening frame, the Caps played their brand of heavy hockey doling out 17 hits to just seven for the Penguins, this occurred while Washington had a 32-22 shot attempt advantage and a one goal lead. The Caps tally came on a three on one rush when Andre Burakovsky buried the rebound of a Jason Chimera shot.

But something happened on the way to the forum in period two. Pittsburgh continued to attempt their stretch passes and the Capitals didn’t help themselves by committing too many turnovers. As a result, the Pens scored two goals in less than a minute just past the game’s midpoint to seemingly take over, with the second being an all world top shelf backhander from Evgeni Malkin. Washington was getting outskated and they were struggling to handle the Pens speed and pressure, at that point. But Oshie made a great play to get around Olli Maatta shortly after a defensive zone draw and #77 raced in alone on Matthew Murray (31 saves) and beat him short side, top shelf just 33 seconds after the black and gold had seized a one goal lead. Coach Barry Trotz stated afterwards that the Oshie goal was huge in terms of getting his club to settle down.

In the third period, Oshie struck again, this time on the backhand, after Alex Ovechkin (1 assist, 4 shots on goal, and seven hits in 25:01) made a nice play to get him the puck. That was just 3:23 into the final frame, but once again turnovers did the Capitals in and Nick Bonino, who was the best Penguin on the ice, snapped one by Braden Holtby (42 saves) following a defensive zone giveaway with 11:18 remaining in regulation. From there the teams traded chances, with Ovechkin nearly scoring on a backhand move with just over three minutes to go, but Murray made a super pad save.

In the overtime, the Caps really amped their game up and carried the play, out shot attempting the Penguins, 15-8. Washington did a super job of getting pucks deep and putting a strong forecheck on the Pens defense, and that allowed them to keep the biscuit in the offensive zone until Oshie was able to close the deal and give the Caps the early lead in this series.

Again, wow, this was one heck of a hockey game!

Both teams really brought it and I see this potentially being a battle for the ages. The Caps need to do a better job with their puck management in game two and they also need to bring the body more. Coach Barry Trotz commented afterwards that he thought his club played lighter than he wanted in periods two and three.

The Holtbeast was a also a difference maker stopping 42 of 45 shots. Washington would like to cut that shots against number significantly down in game two, which would indicate more of a grinding style that better suits their personnel.

One thing is for certain, game two will not be a boring one. The Penguins will attempt to do whatever they can to steal a game on the road while the Capitals try to hold serve at a raucous Verizon Center.

Notes: Kris Letang led both teams in ice time with 34:02. He had an assist on Malkin’s goal, doled out seven hits and blocked three shots…Washington’s ice time leaders were Matt Niskanen (32:13) and John Carlson (29:49). Both are rock stars on the back end. Karl Alzner logged 27:56 and Brooks Orpik returned from injury to play 25:56. Nate Schmidt (-2) and Dmitry Orlov (-1), were used sparingly and played just 12:13 and 5:44, respectively. Coach Trotz was clearly not happy with Orlov’s play on the first Pens tally. #9 was abused by Bonino at the blue line and then he knocked Schmidt out of the play allowing Ben Lovejoy to get an easy rebound marker…the Caps lost the face off battle, 46-39. Mike Richards, who centered Burakovsky and Chimera, was 12-5 while Jay Beagle went 12-7. Nicklas Backstrom (+2) was 7-20 and most of those were against Sidney Crosby (19-9)…Oshie and Ovechkin were both +3…game two is at 8 pm on Saturday night at the Verizon Center.

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Game Six Backy

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Caps Win the Series as Holtby Shuts Out the Flyers

Posted on 24 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Braden Holtby made 26 saves behind another dominating 200 foot performance from the Capitals, who made the only goal of the game from Nicklas Backstrom stand up to extinguish the Flyers in game six, 1-0.

The Capitals will now move on to play the red hot and fast Pittsburgh Penguins later this week while the cheap shot artist Flyers will have all summer to hone their tactics on the golf course. It is always fun to knock off that team, which promotes Neanderthal-styled behavior and hockey on the ice, but more on them later.

Washington won this series with team defense by allowing only six goals in six games. The Holtbeast had two shutouts and only permitted five non empty net goals, one of which came off of his own teammate in game five. The Caps top three defensemen, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Karl Alzner, were absolutely fabulous in this series. They were physical and Carlson showed why he’s a top ten NHL blue liner, in my book, with his defensive skills and offensive ability. He was downright sensational for Coach Barry Trotz in the six game series victory. Alzner is playing the best hockey of his career and Niskanen is just so good at both ends of the rink. His hitting ability is vastly underrated.

Another big part of the Caps team defense was the way their forwards were back checking when the puck came out of the Washington zone. The forwards routinely hauled back and stole puck after puck from the Flyers in the neutral zone or forced Philly into turning it over at the offensive blue line because the Capitals defensemen were able to step up and make plays. It was text book coverage all over the ice and Filthy had few odd man rushes in the series, as a result. They also had a minimal amount of quality scoring chances and the Caps set a franchise record with this performance in terms of fewest goals allowed in a seven game series (previous mark was 7 vs. Ottawa in 1998). Washington will need to maintain that type of defensive play against the offensively minded Penguins.

Michal Neuvirth was the single reason the Flyers were able to extend this series to six games. He was stellar in net in only allowing two goals in three games, one on a rebound by T.J. Oshie in game four and the Backstrom marker on Sunday, which he had no chance on. Alex Ovechkin made a super play at the blue line to get the puck to Marcus Johansson (six points in six games) and Jojo made a perfect pass to Nicky, who buried the shot into the yawning cage for the game winner at 8:59 of the second period.

Johansson was a big bright spot and a huge reason why Washington was able to finally bury the Flyers. The Caps had strong contributions up and down the lineup, especially from the bottom six forwards. Mike Richards, Tom Wilson, Daniel Winnik, Jojo, and Jay Beagle were all at or near the top of their respective games. Wilson was near perfect in game six and the Flyers were flat out afraid of him as the series went on. He opens up space on the ice for the Caps forwards. If he plays like that and stays out of the box, he is a real factor in the post season when the games are tight and hitting really matters.

If there was a down area in this series, it was the second line. Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky had the puck quite a bit, but by the end of the series they looked tired and a bit timid, at times, as they were getting taken off of the puck too easily on the wall. Justin Williams was okay at even strength, save for his four penalty night in game five. This was a bad match up for that line against the physical Flyers, but I expect them to have more favorable results against the Penguins, and they’ll need to do so.

In game six, the Capitals wanted to be more disciplined, and they were. Unfortunately, a friendly fire high stick by a Flyers player on Ryan White was called a double minor on Backstrom just four minutes after the Flyers had killed off a five on three for the Caps early in the second period with the game scoreless. I’ll give the zebras some benefit of the doubt because it happened so fast, but the replay clearly showed it wasn’t Backstrom or any other Caps stick that hit White in the nose. Shouldn’t the officials be able to use replay there to get the call correct? I’m all for automatic review of high sticking calls in the post season, especially the double minor kind. So please fix this NHL!

This incorrect call came at a critical juncture and it was made worse when the referees mistakenly whistled Matt Niskanen for hooking Wayne Simmonds right off of the ensuing face off in front of Holtby. Watch the replay of that one again, that’s just good defense there.

Coach Trotz’ crew was suddenly down two men for infractions that weren’t committed by them, but credit the mental toughness of this Capitals team. They didn’t flinch one bit. They worked hard and killed off the four minutes, including two minutes of five on three by only allowing three shots on goal, which the Holtbeast turned away. Beagle, Carlson, Alzner, and Richards were just superb on those kills. Richards, as he has done repeatedly in this series, was so good at dropping down to cover the back door on Flyers power play opportunities. His stick prevented Jakub Voracek from giving the Flyers the lead on the five on three.

With momentum gained on that crucial kill, the Capitals scored just two and half minutes later to set the stage for the final frame, where the Caps just kept the Flyers to the outside to preserve the victory.

When the horn sounded, this was one sweet victory for the Capitals and their fans over their arch rivals since 1974. Washington now owns a 3-2 lifetime playoff series advantage on the Flyers (wins in 1984, 1988, and 2016; losses in 1989 and 2008).

After the Caps domination in game five in a 1-0 loss that allowed Philly to pull within 3-2 in the series, there were factions in the media and the fan base that immediately shifted into the “Here We Go Again” and “Caps are Going to Blow It Again” mode. The “Capitals are Cursed” mantra was thrown around far too much for my liking. I’m not surprised by it coming from some of the media, that’s their job to stir it up, but it was frustrating and disappointing to see so many fans fall blindly into it. To quote Bruce Springsteen, many in the fan base need to simply “Show a little faith.”

I’ve been steadfast all season in my belief that this team is different from past Capitals teams and they have shown that throughout the season. This is the best Caps team ever assembled and coached, period. Yet the first sign of trouble we had too many breaking their legs jumping off of the bandwagon.

Where’s the mental toughness?

Fortunately this Caps team has it and it is different. There are eight players who weren’t on this roster last season when they lost to the Rangers in May; Oshie, Williams, Richards, Winnik, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Taylor Chorney, and Mike Weber (who was excellent in 8:48 of ice time in game six). Those players have helped upgrade the talent and closeness of this club. Williams and Richards bring a wealth of experience (five Stanley Cups), too. There will be bumps in the road and it is the teams that stick together that fight through tough stretches and prevail. Again, show a little faith fans.

Finally, let’s talk about what it means to beat the Flyers.

Forgive me for not heeding Tim McGraw’s advice to “Always be humble and kind” here, because when it comes to the Flyers, all bets are off. They are despised by many and unlike the Pittsburgh Steelers, who the Ravens fan base very much despises, Philadelphia is not respected, where the football team that is run by the Rooneys in Steeltown is respected. Flyers owner Ed Snider passed away right before this series began and the people who work for him have always pretty much been first class to me off of the ice from Joe Kadelec, Gene Hart, Bobby Taylor, Bobby Clarke, and Dave Brown on down, including Gene Prince, who used to run the Spectrum and Wells Fargo Center press boxes.

But on the ice is a different story. Snider preached physical hockey and that’s okay, as long as it is done between the whistles. In this series, the Flyers crossed the line too many times. Simmonds cross checked Ovechkin in the back of the knee in game two and Brayden Schenn did the same thing to Kuznetsov in game four, with both coming well AFTER THE WHISTLE. They were bush league moves along with the intent to injure hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellmare on Orlov in game three, simply because the Flyers were being sore losers. The Capitals may have actually benefited by not hitting the empty net at the end of game six because it would’ve given the sore loser Flyer players time to get in at least another cheap shot or two.

Speaking of bush league and being sore losers, it was just two and a half years ago when goalie Ray Emery raced across the ice and jumped Holtby then started pounding him in a game the Caps would end up winning 7-0. It was disgraceful, but the dinosaur like fans in Filthy loved it and a media member made a bozo move naming Emery the game’s third star. That’s typical Philadelphia Flyer mentality. They’ve been setting the game back for 40 years on the ice, so they’ll get no praise from me.

Look, the Flyers overachieved this year and have some good young players, but they are cement heads on the ice and that leads to their overall reputation. As Niskanen repeatedly told me in this series, “it’s in their DNA.” They’ll continue to be nothing but losers until they clean that stuff up and shame on the NHL for allowing  too much of it to happen far too often. It also leads to many of their fans acting like babies and idiots on occassion, witness game three’s bracelet throwing spree. Simply put, on the ice, that team is pretty much classless.

But good for Coach Trotz for praising the Flyers season in his post game presser, he is a classy man as is Caps GM, Brian MacLellan. Those two know what they are doing and have assembled a roster that will go up against the vaunted Penguins, who own a 7-1 all time series record against the Caps. But none of that matters and the last time these teams met in the playoffs was 2009.

Again, this Capitals team is different. It is a challenging match up and Washington will need to play their game properly to win the series. This club is mentally tough and I’m not guaranteeing a victory, but the fan base needs to show a little faith, in fact a lot of faith, and stick by them as they go up against Sidney Crosby and company.

Oh, and one more thing, see ya Flyers!

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Neuvy Game 4

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Caps Late Charge Halted by Neuvirth

Posted on 21 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Philadelphia Flyers, behind 31 saves from former Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth, staved off elimination in front of a raucous, but much better behaved Wells Fargo Center crowd on Wednesday night. Shane Gostisbehere and Andrew MacDonald scored in the first 40 minutes for the Flyers and they held on for a 2-1 win.

The Caps lead the series three games to one with game five on Friday night at 7 pm at the Verizon Center.

Philadelphia came out flying and hitting and Washington was unable to match their intensity. In addition, the Caps weren’t executing on their zone exits and that allowed Philly to gain momentum.

“They were really coming trying to disrupt our breakouts, so that took away from our game,” said Matt Niskanen, who logged 24:16 of ice time in this one.

Taylor Chorney, who was in for an injured Brooks Orpik, took an ill advised penalty just over five minutes into the game and it proved costly for Washington as “Ghost” scored from the point with Wayne Simmonds screening Braden Holtby (25 saves). Coach Barry Trotz saw some contact by #17 on Holtby, and there was, so he challenged the call, but the referees deemed it wasn’t enough to overturn it.

The Flyers second goal, which came at just under four minutes into period two, hit a Caps player on the way in, and it was the result of Washington not working hard enough and giving the Flyers too much space in their own zone.

In the final frame, the Flyers sat back and the Caps really came at them. T.J. Oshie scored on the rebound of a Matt Niskanen shot before three minutes were gone. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom did a super job of creating traffic in front.

The Capitals attack continued with speed throughout the period and Neuvirth, who had a super easy first 40 minutes, made his best stops on Tom Wilson on the doorstep and Mike Richards from point blank range. Neuvy had 12 saves in the final period to earn the win.

Washington became the more desperate team in the third period, but it wasn’t enough for a series sweep.

“We’re going to have to have that level of will and compete right from the drop of the puck on Friday. We should be excited about going home with the opportunity to close the series in five,” added Niskanen.

The Flyers crowd was certainly a factor in this one and now Washington gets home ice on Friday.

“They feed off of the crowd here. We have an excellent home crowd so we’ll be excited to go home and get the right match ups too with home ice advantage,” finished Niskanen.

Niskanen is spot on. The Capitals need to come out and dictate the pace of play, rather than react to what the Flyers are going to do. Washington is the better and bigger team, they need to announce their presence with authority, early and often, on Friday night to not let this series go any farther.

Notes: Shot attempts were 41-41 through two periods and ended 76-47 for the Caps…Washington won the faceoff battle, 29-27. Kuznetsov was 9-5…Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, but only two in the first 30 minutes. Overall, he only had two shots on goal…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:23…the Flyers were 1 for 2 on the power play while Washington went 0 for 2…Scott Laughton crashed hard into the boards in the 1st period and left on a stretcher. He was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons…Brayden Schenn got away with a dirty cheap shot on Kuznetsov in period two. He slashed hard at the back of #92’s legs while Kuzy had his back to Schenn after a whistle. Both referees, Wes McCauley and Francois Charron, did not see it, but the cameras did capture it. It was a gutless move and there is no room in the game for that.

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Holts Richards Flyers Game 2

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The Holtbeast Wins Game Two for the Caps

Posted on 17 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

In hockey, great goaltenders find ways to carry their team to victory when they aren’t anywhere close to their best.

On Saturday night, against the Philadelphia Flyers in game two of this opening round best of seven series, Braden Holtby did just that for the Washington Capitals.

The Holtbeast stopped 41 out of 42 shots, including 19 in the opening frame, to lead the Caps to a 4-1 victory and allow Washington to head up I-95 on Monday night for game three with a two games to none series lead.

Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson scored on the power play and Washington’s penalty killing unit, which starts with Holtby, was stellar going a perfect four for four on the night in 4:58 of shorthanded time. 67 seconds of that time included a two man advantage for the Flyers in the opening frame, but the only biscuit that got by #70 was from Jakub Voracek in the middle frame after the Capitals were up 2-0. Usually the team that prevails in a five on three situation wins the hockey game, and that was the case on Saturday night at the Phone Booth.

The Caps knew the Flyers would be the more desperate team after Washington’s dominating game one victory and Philadelphia played like it. I’m not sure if the Capitals talked themselves into being outplayed, but they certainly were for many stretches of this one as the Flyers had their legs going to win the shot attempt battle, 80-48?

Quality scoring chances were much closer and according to War on Ice, the high danger quality chances were 13 apiece, and 9-4 for Washington over the last two periods (h/t to @ThePeerless).

But the Caps players knew afterwards that this was not one of their quality performances. They looked slow on the puck for numerous stretches and their gap control suffered, at times. The first period saw the Flyers out shoot the Capitals, 19-5.

“Not exactly the way we wanted to start, I don’t think we were as bad as everyone is making it seem because of the shots, I mean I think they stuffed it into Holts’ paddle maybe 10 times in the first period. Obviously that was a mindset for them, wanting to get more shots, they did a good job of that and keeping zone time. I thought we could have done a better job of eliminating the second chances, but it may be a little bit skewed from just shots from everywhere. I think we did a better job in the second and third [periods], but we knew they were going to bring it and they did. It was a battle out there,” said Carlson, who scored the game’s first goal on the power play and also added an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s tally to close out the scoring.

The Flyers certainly emptied the tank with a strong effort. They were all over the Capitals for the first 30 to 35 minutes, but after two periods, it was 3-1 on the scoreboard. In the third period, Philadelphia pressed and the Caps had numerous rushes to close this one out, but it took until Backstrom’s marker with 2:13 remaining to secure the outcome.

“You know that team, they’re going to be pressing big time…I like that we weren’t selling out for those chances, we were just battling, battling, and then the puck squirts out and we won the race for it, stuff like that, we weren’t just getting lucky,” finished Carlson, who logged 23:11 on defense with seven blocked shots and two hits, including one in which he creamed Brayden Schenn after #10 tried to smash him.

Holtby was the difference in the game and Steve Mason let in a real softie from Jason Chimera, a deflected long pass near the center line that somehow alluded the Flyers net minder via the five hole to give the Caps a 2-0 lead.

The Flyers goal came in four on four when Brooks Orpik played the man on a rush and Schenn reached around #44 and fed Jakub Vorachek for an in close goal. Washington didn’t do a good enough job of covering the opposition on that one.

But Ovechkin would answer about eight minutes later as he took a Backstrom feed and lasered one by Mason on the man advantage. Marcus Johansson (two assists) and T.J. Oshie made nice plays to help keep the puck alive in that sequence.

This was a big win for the Capitals despite not playing well.

“They played way better than we did, to be honest, if we didn’t have Holtby in net they would have probably been a lot to a little, early on. Holts stood on his head. We didn’t play well. We didn’t execute very well and we had timely goals on the power play,” said Mike Richards, who was +1 in 14:42 of ice time, including 2:30 of penalty killing duty.

On those four power plays, Philadelphia repeatedly tried to work the puck down low and then try a cross crease pass that normally would lead to a back door easy goal. Washington, however, had that covered according to Richards.

“The D did a good job with that actually because we try to pre scout them as much as you can and it’s hard because they’re trying different things. It’s nice to have good penalty killing, but it’s a lot nicer when you only have to do it two or three times a night,” added Richards, who had three hits, including a monster one on Nick Cousins in the neutral zone in the third period.

Following the contest, Coach Barry Trotz noted that despite the shot attempts and quality chance totals, there is only one stat that matters, the final score. Washington won that one, but they were not near their perfect or ideal game.

“They’re a desperate team and we didn’t match their desperation, to be honest. Now they’re in a bigger hole and they’re going to come more desperate at home, so if we don’t play a better game in Philadelphia in game three, we’re probably not going to have too much of a chance, so we have to play better, we know we can play better. That’s a good team over there with good players, they play hard, so we know we just have to be better,” finished Richards.

While I liked some parts of the Capitals game on Saturday night, on the whole, Richards is correct. Philadelphia wanted this game more and the Caps have to be better.

Luckily for Washington they have “The Holtbeast.”

Notes: the Caps won the face off battle, 33-29. Jay Beagle was 9-7…it was a physical game and Washington led in hits, 38-36. Ovechkin had seven of the 38…Washington was two for two with the man advantage in 1:16 of power play time…Johansson played extremely well and had two assists…Richards was super for the Capitals on Saturday night…Karl Alzner led the Caps in ice time with 25:08. King Karl had an assist and three blocked shots…Shayne Gostisbehere led the Flyers in ice time with 22:54.

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Ovi Blues

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Ovechkin and Holtby Hit Big Milestones in Caps Victory Over the Blues

Posted on 10 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Alex Ovechkin scored three times to reach the 50 goal plateau for the third straight season and the seventh time in his career, Nicklas Backstrom added three assists to hit 50 helpers on the campaign, and Justin Chimera scored his 20th goal of the season in a Capitals 5-1 rout over the St. Louis Blues.

Most importantly, Braden Holtby notched his 48th victory of the season with 19 saves and this triumph ties him with Martin Brodeur for the most wins ever in an NHL season. The Holtbeast gave up an early goal to Vladimir Tarasenko just 75 seconds into this tilt, but the Blues were shut down the rest of the way.

“We are happy for him. He deserved it and he’s the beat goalie in the league right now,” said Captain Oveckhin afterwards, who is heating up nicely for the first round of the NHL playoffs, which will start against the Philadelphia Flyers this week (likely Thursday).

Wow, this was one dominating performance by the Caps!

After two periods they led 4-1 and had a 26 to 10 shots on goal advantage. For the game, shots on goal were 36-20 and shot attempts were 60-41 for the Caps.

Following the contest Coach Barry Trotz was pleased and noted that his club played a 200 foot game. The bench boss was spot on as Washington was more engaged physically and emotionally than they’ve been in recent weeks. They were taking the body, getting pucks deep in the offensive zone, and they weren’t cheating positionally. You’d be hard pressed to find any odd man rushes for the Blues in this one.

What’s also interesting about this win is that the Caps had pretty much nothing to play for except individual milestones while the Blues still had the Central Division title at stake. As a result of the defeat, Ken Hitchcock’s squad will face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round while the first place Dallas Stars will take on the sinking Minnesota Wild. That’s quite a difference!

TJ Oshie played his first game back in St. Louis after last summer’s trade. He received a standing ovation from the fans and he was fabulous as the top line right wing playing with the Gr8 and Backstrom. That first unit, which was victimized by the Blues to open the scoring, came back with a vengeance. Oshie had just one assist, but he played a big factor in all three of Ovechkin’s goals with strong board work, defensive back checking that led to a big steal, and great net drive. #77 had 11 shot attempts and five shots on goal. He narrowly missed scoring on several occasions.

John Carlson and Brooks Orpik were paired on defense together and they were dynamite. Both were +3 and Carlson had a goal and an assist. Carlson’s goal was a thing of beauty as Tom Wilson fed a sweet pass to #74 that he backhanded home from the slot. That defensive pair was outstanding and physical. Carlson looks great and his skating and play is back to where it was before he was injured on December 26th.

For Chimera, this is his second 20 goal season (2011-12). It’s amazing how far he has come since December of 2014 when he was a healthy scratch. Right before last spring’s playoffs he finally bought into what Caoch Trotz was selling and at age 36 (he’ll be 37 on May 2nd) he looks as good as ever. Big credit to “Chimmer” for rethinking things and taking his play to another level under this coaching staff.

Mike Weber received a sweater for the first time in weeks and he played well paired with Dmitry Orlov. Weber’s physical style looks to be a good fit for playoff hockey and with the big and chippy Flyers up in round one, you could see him in the lineup.

Perhaps the only bad news of the evening was that Jay Beagle took a shot to his left ankle from Tarasenko and had to leave the game. He will be evaluated on Sunday and is considered day-to-day according to the Capitals PR staff.

With the victory the Caps move to the 120 point mark at 56-17-8 with just one game remaining. Perhaps most impressive of all is the Caps will go the ENTIRE NHL season without losing back to back games in regulation. The last team to do that was the Montreal Canadiens in 1976-77 (h/t to Ben Raby). Oh by the way, that club won the Stanley Cup. Just saying!

The regular season finale will be at the Verizon Center on Sunday night against the Anaheim Ducks. It would be a meaningless game for both teams since the Ducks cannot win the Pacific Division if the Kings are victorious on Saturday night over Winnipeg.

Given that the game likely will not be a factor in the standings, will Coach Trotz start Holtby to try and set the victory record? After all, the Holtbeast did have a fairly light workload on Saturday. Following Thursday’s loss, Coach Trotz stated that Holtby and Philipp Grubauer would both play this weekend. It remains to be seen if that decision is re-addressed given how well Saturday night played out for Washington.

In summary, the Caps were outstanding and look ready for the playoffs. They just need to get through Sunday’s tilt without suffering any more injuries.

Then it is bring on the Flyers!

Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:51…Ovechkin locked up the “Rocket” Richard trophy with his 50th goal of the season…Holtby should win the Vezina Trophy…Wilson was +2 in 13:42 and played his best game in weeks. He had 0 PIMs…the Caps won the face off battle, 30-25. Mike Richards was 13-6…Richards, who had another strong game, played 3rd line center with Marcus Johansson and Chimera. That unit looked great…Richards and Orpik led the Capitals in hits with four each…the game against the Ducks on Sunday night at the Verizon Center is the makeup from the originally scheduled tilt on January 22nd that was wiped out due to Jonas. Puck drop is at 7:30. It will be Justin Williams’ 1,000 NHL game.

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Isles Beat Caps

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Caps Squander Lead and Lose to Islanders in Overtime

Posted on 05 April 2016 by Ed Frankovic

There are good losses in sports and there are bad losses.

On Tuesday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals suffered one of the bad variety yielding a 3-1 lead with 12 minutes remaining and losing in overtime to the New York Islanders, 4-3.

The Caps kept their season long streak of not losing two games in a row in regulation alive, but for just the second time after a loss, they fell in overtime and are now 15-0-2 after a regulation defeat in 2015-16.

Washington has been in preseason-like mode in several games recently, due to the standings, but they played a decent first period and took the lead on Alex Ovechkin’s 46th goal of the season thanks to a great screen in front by T.J. Oshie. The Caps had the puck a lot in that first frame, but they didn’t get enough rubber on rookie goalie, Christopher Gibson, who was playing because starter Thomas Greiss manned the cage on Monday in a 5-2 win over Tampa. Jaroslav Halak is also out injured and third goalie, Jean-Francois Berube, is sick, so you’d think that Washington would want to rattle the youngster early? They failed to do so and Gibson got stronger as the game went on.

Period two was pretty bad hockey as Washington looked in “la-la” land repeatedly turning pucks over and let New York hang around to get the game tied after 40 minutes. Heading into this contest the Caps were 3-0 against the Islanders this season after defeating them in seven games in last spring’s first round. It was getting to the point where the Isles had to feel like beating the Caps might’ve been too tall a mountain to climb.

With New York having played the night before, common wisdom had the Capitals coming out and jumping on the Islanders in the third period, and they did just that. Oshie scored his 26th goal of the season when he took a fanned Marcus Johansson pass and snapped it by Gibson just 75 seconds into the period. Ovechkin would then score his 47th goal of the season at the 6:56 mark finishing a three on one break from Oshie and Johansson.

Game over, right?

In the past with Washington, that normally would’ve been the case, but not tonight. The Islanders more than climbed that mountain storming back quickly with two goals in 1:45 as the Capitals went to sleep in their own end. Braden Holtby, who was on the cusp of tying Martin Brodeur’s win record, seemed to buckle a bit under that pressure and had a mistake of his own on each of the two New York comeback tallies. On the second Islanders goal, by Kyle Okposo, he totally misplayed the puck as it came out from behind the net and on the game tying tally, he probably should’ve had the shot, although Dmitry Orlov made another mistake by failing to clear Anders Lee from the front of the net, which allowed Lee to tip the biscuit by the Holtbeast.

From there the game ramped up and both teams had chances. Holtby made a great glove save on Anders Lee with about three minutes left. Evgeny Kuznetsov was in position to shoot one on one with Gibson late, but he chose to force a pass to Ovechkin for the hat trick attempt and another great scoring opportunity was squandered.

In the overtime, Kuznetsov (nine shots on goal) had a breakaway after a John Tavares turnover, but instead of using one of his great deke moves, he shot early, perhaps sensing the opposing defensemen closing in on his right, and Gibson denied him. Ovechkin then had a great chance in the slot, yet somehow the young goalie got the shaft of his stick on it and made the save.

That was all of the help the Islanders needed and Tavares made a great play to set up Thomas Hickey for the game winner and Washington’s domination over New York was gone, along with Holtby’s chance to tie Brodeur on Tuesday night.

That will now have to wait until Thursday night against Pittsburgh at the Verizon Center. The Pens are red hot and the Capitals are not. They are simply going through the motions for too many long stretches so who knows how that game will play out?

One now has to wonder, does this slight downturn matter given that this is glorified preseason right now? I’d like to say, no, it doesn’t. However, some bad habits have crept into Washington’s play.

It’s fair to ask if the Capitals will be able to flip the switch next Thursday in game one.

The good news in all of this is Caps players are not getting hurt and if this contest really mattered, Nicklas Backstrom would’ve suited up. He’s correctly being nursed back to 100% health. Washington is also not really employing their preferred style of heavy hockey right now, likely because these games, despite the talk of records for Holtby and trophies for Ovechkin, just don’t matter.

You have to be fully invested physically and emotionally to dominate and win hockey games. You can’t do it on skill alone. Right now, the Caps are not invested enough to do so, and that is why the mistakes are happening. They aren’t hitting like they will next week and that’s a big factor in why they don’t look dominating, at this juncture.

So in the grand scheme of things, this “bad loss” did prevent Holtby from getting the record, but it may not really matter if Washington stays healthy and then can turn on their brand of hockey in the post season.

We are just nine days away from that starting and it can’t come soon enough for the Capitals.

Notes: The victory clinched a playoff berth for the Islanders and also means that Washington will likely face one of the Flyers, Red Wings, or Bruins in the first round. Boston lost in the shootout to Carolina on Tuesday so they are tied for 3rd place with Detroit in the Atlantic. The Wings have a game in hand…the Caps outshot the Islanders, 32-27, but New York had more shot attempts, 62-57…all three Capitals goals came from the top line. Ovechkin (two goals) and Johansson (three assists) were both +3 while Oshie (three points) was +2…Orlov and Andre Burakovsky were both -2. Orlov was on the ice for three Islanders goals and just one Caps tally (the first). He continues to have defensive zone lapses…Tavares had a goal and two assists and was the best player in the game.

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Alex Ovechkin scores his 44th goal of the season and the Holtbeast makes 33 saves in a shootout loss.

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Caps Lose in the Shootout to the Flyers

Posted on 30 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The Philadelphia Flyers had everything to play for and the Washington Capitals only had some individual milestones to motivate them as well as the annual stench that is the squad formerly known as the Broad Street Bullies.

In an entertaining game that saw the referees pretty much let things get out of hand, the team from the City of Supposed Brotherly Love came out on top in the skills competition, 2-1.

On the good side, Alexander Ovechkin notched his 44th goal of the season on the power play and now has a five puck lead for the Rocket Richard trophy with six games remaining (Patrick Kane and Jamie Benn). On the bad side, Braden Holtby was fabulous in the cage with 33 saves, but a hooking penalty by Marcus Johansson led to a late Brayden Schenn power play tally when he tipped home Claude Giroux’s blast with 5:28 remaining.

Washington received an overtime man advantage when Wayne Simmonds tripped Evgeny Kuznetsov, but Nicklas Backstrom hit the left post on a beautiful set up and Philadelphia killed the remainder of that sequence. It was clearly an opportunity lost for Washington.

Sean Couturier then ran Holtby, but somehow the zebras gave #70 a matching minor for roughing??!!

Yeah, something.

The Flyers would then defeat the Caps in the shootout and the Holtbeast is still stuck on win number 46 with likely four starts remaining for him. He needs two victories to tie Marty Brodeur’s single season record. Holtby was just outstanding in this game making several big stops.

Overall, this was a pretty even game. The shot attempts favored Philly, 69-68, and shots on goal were 34-30 for the Flyers. The Caps were unlucky with some pipes hit, in addition to Backstrom’s in OT, Ovechkin hit the left pipe in the second period after he undressed Nick Schultz.

Kuznetsov, who has been struggling in recent games, was better in this one and his pass to the Gr8 on the power play 1:28 in to period three was a beauty of the saucer variety. It’s one that Fox Mulder probably would classify as a UFO.

Believe.

It’s never fun to lose to the Flyers, but in the four games they’ve played against each other this season, the Caps are 2-0-2. One loss came in 3 on 3 and the other in the gimmick. None of that stuff happens in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So for the group of Debbie Downers out there on the ledge afraid of playing Philly in the post season, I have a quote from one Douglas C Niedermayer, Sergeant at Arms, for  you.

“You’re all worthless and weak! Now drop and give me twenty!”

Once again, believe.

This Caps team is deep and will bring the intensity when the games matter. Right now this is basically glorified preseason for them. I’ll give the Flyers credit for playing hard, albeit a bit dirty, at times, but I expect nothing less from them.

The loss drops the Caps to 54-16-6 (114 points), but the Presidents’ Trophy was already clinched on Monday night. It’s now off to Colorado and Arizona for back to back tilts this weekend. You can expect to see Philipp Grubauer get one of those starts and perhaps Michael Latta, Stan Galiev, Mike Weber, and Taylor Chorney will see some game action, as well, to shake off the rust?

Right now it’s all about staying healthy for the playoffs. April 13th can’t come soon enough, but patience is all we must have right now.

Keep the faith.

Notes: The Caps were dominated from the dot, 41-28. Backstrom was 1-14, ouch!…Dmitry Orlov had a better game on Wednesday and doled out four hits. His decision making in his own zone was very solid, too…Jay Beagle led the Caps with five shots on goal. He had a great chance in overtime, but waited too long after Steve Mason (29 saves) had the five hole open for a few moments…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 26:42…both teams were 1 for 3 with the man advantage.

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John Carlson has a memorable return from injury with an OT blast that gives the Holtbeast his 45th victory of the season

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Carlson Tallies the Game Winner as Holtbeast Blanks the Devils

Posted on 25 March 2016 by Ed Frankovic

In his first game back after missing 12 contests, John Carlson showed why he is so valuable to this Washington Capitals team as he fired a laser just inside the far post past Scott Wedgewood to give the Caps a 1-0 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils.

Carlson’s rocket, after a super feed from Jason Chimera, ended Wedgewood’s shutout streak at 159:34 and put Washington just a single point away from clinching the Presidents’ Trophy. In addition, Braden Holby (22 saves) earned his 3rd shutout of the season, in Martin Brodeur’s old building. The Holtbeast notched season triumph number 45 and he is just three victories away from tying Marty’s all time NHL leading single season win total.

Washington came out strong early on, which has been a recent trend, once again dominating the shot attempts, but they failed to find the handle on several sequences around the net. The Caps would outshoot the Devils, 10-4, in that opening frame, however, Wedgewood and several missed opportunities kept this one scoreless.

The second period mirrored the first, with the Caps outshooting the Devils, 9-6. Both goalies made some decent stops and with New Jersey having played the night before in Pittsburgh and ending the Pens six game winning streak on Thursday, one would think they would be the more tired club in the final frame.

That was not the case as the Devils fired 11 shots on Holtby while Washington had just five. The Caps were guilty, once again, of over passing the puck and therefore, were not able to not consistently get the biscuit to the cage. Alex Ovechkin drew a penalty with 2:16 remaining, but Washington’s power play struggled to get set up and off to overtime we went.

In the extra session, Wedgewood made a huge stop on Ovechkin to extend the game. Shortly thereafter, Marcus Johansson made another great zone entry and he gave the puck to Chimera on the left wing boards. Chimmer skated behind the net looking for a pass and he came patiently out the other side to tee it up for #74 for the game winner.

This was tough sledding for the Caps as New Jersey basically conserved energy by guarding their own net like a fort. They tried to sit back and counter attack, but Washington did a nice job of not forcing plays which will often lead to odd man rushes. However, skating through the Devils and trying to get pucks to the front of the opposing goaltender was exactly how Craig Laughlin termed it, “like a tractor pull.”

It was not going to be pretty hockey, much like the case in the Capitals previous visit to the Prudential Center. In that contest Washington had to overcome the Devils in a shootout. Simply put, New Jersey doesn’t have the fire power that the Caps have so they really have only one way to try and win, sit back and hope for mistakes. That style earned them a point on Friday night, but their season is basically over, except for the mathematics.

Overall, this was a solid effort from the Capitals and Coach Trotz will be pleased that they stuck to their game plan without getting frustrated. They kept doing what they were supposed to do and maintained strong puck support all evening, which prevented the opportunistic Devils from capitalizing on any turnovers.

Perhaps the most encouraging item of the evening was getting Carlson back. His goal, in my book, was just icing on the cake to a solid performance in which he actually appears to be moving much more like the player he was before originally sustaining a lower body injury against Montreal back on December 26th. Carlson is the Capitals number one defensemen and an elite NHL blue liner, so his return to form is important for the post season. Washington was finally able to ice its top six defenders and it was clear how much of a difference it makes in terms of controlling the play.

The victory improves the Capitals to 53-15-5 and an astounding 111 points with nine games remaining. They are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games despite really having nothing to play for. On Saturday at the Verizon Center, Washington will take on the St. Louis Blues, who rolled over the Canucks on Friday night. It will be a matchup of two teams coming off of shutout victories that also had to travel to the District afterwards. As mentioned above, any point earned by the Caps yields them the franchises second Presidents’ Trophy.

That piece of hardware has been a foregone conclusion for weeks and the team focus has been on better starts and building their game for the playoffs. On Friday in New Jersey, large portions of this game were playoff-like in terms of the lack of open space on the ice, so it was another good tune up in order to help the Caps prepare for the all-important post season.

Notes: Both teams failed to score on the power play (NJ was 0 for 3 and Washington went 0 for 2)…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:14. Carlson logged 19:27 and Nate Schmidt had the lowest for a blue liner with 16:25. That is excellent ice time management by the coaching staff since no one was overworked…the Capitals dominated from the dot, going 32-20 (62%). Mike Richards was 9-2 and Nicklas Backstrom went 10-7…Ovechkin had nine shot attempts with four that made their way through to Wedgewood…T.J. Oshie missed the game due to the flu. Stan Galiev received a sweater as a result and logged 8:21. He had two shots on goal.

Special thanks to budding journalist, Anthony Poisal, for providing me with key statistics and assisting in the development of this game story.

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